How the nerds are leading us up the cyber path

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Computer programmers really are nerds who are turning the rest of us into techno-anoraks too, according to new research. As thousands of children and their parents struggle with the instructions of their Christmas computer, Louise Jury investigates reasons for the difficulty.

So at last you are joining the electronic age. Santa delivered a computer and you have been sitting there since Christmas lunch trying to fathom it out.

It is not working. Somewhere along the line there is a major comprehension gap. This may not be your fault.

Dr Paul Nightingale, of Sussex University, says the problem is that the people who make technology know about technology by definition. They do not understand those of us who do not.

"Their perception of the problem they are solving is very different," he said.

"You need a certain kind of mathematical genius to juggle the ideas to make elegant [software] designs. But brilliant minds aren't very good at ordinary things like washing and shopping. They are what you could call very loosely coupled to reality.

"So they're not necessarily any good at understanding how people work and how software is used. They don't understand that secretaries might want to stop for a chat, because they do everything by e-mail."

Take Bill Gates, founder of the Microsoft company and now a billionaire whose hobby is attending physics lectures - Robert X Cringely describes the software magnate thus in his book, Accidental Empires: How the boys of Silicon Valley make their million, battle foreign competition and still can't get a date: "The second most important woman in Bill Gates' life is probably his housekeeper, with whom he communicates mainly through a personal graphical user interface - a large white board that sits in Gates's bedroom ... Bill can communicate his need for dinner at 8 or for a new pair of socks (brown), all without having to speak or be seen."

Dr Nightingale, whose research at the university's Complex Product Systems Innovation Centre is aimed at trying to overcome this problem, said that Gates is not alone. Computer obsessives were more than happy to avoid traditional human contact. "And they programme their perception of work into their computers."

Effectively, this forces the rest of us to behave like computer nerds too. We have to think like them in order to use their software.

Professor Roger Needham, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University and head of Microsoft's new pounds 50m research project there, said it was undoubtedly the case that many people thought computers were gratuitously difficult to use. But it was very difficult to discover exactly what people understood. "If you read Which? [consumer magazine] on the subject of gas cookers or washing machines you'll find some products being criticised for being difficult to use. You would think we'd know how to get those right by now."

If people really differed in how they use computers then it would be difficult to satisfy them all, Professor Needham said.

"We know some things don't suit everybody, but if you offer all the options that in itself is repellent."

His advice to anyone with a new computer was to get it to do something. "Then you begin to feel in control. It's when you can't get it to do anything that it's extraordinarily frustrating."